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 CNS Story:

NDAME-JENKINS May-15-2009 (880 words) With photo posted March 24. xxxn

Notre Dame head praises graduating seniors for decorum amid debate

By Catholic News Service

NOTRE DAME, Ind. (CNS) -- In a letter to Notre Dame's graduating seniors, Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins praised them for their decorum during the weeks of debate surrounding the university's choice of President Barack Obama as commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient.

"I have never been more proud than I have been watching the way you've conducted yourselves over the past several weeks," he wrote in a May 11 letter.

He noted "in many cases the debate has grown heated" and added that the students' own debate about the school's May 17 graduation ceremonies has had "an extra dimension."

"You have discussed this issue with each other while being observed, interviewed and evaluated by people who are interested in this story. You engaged each other with passion, intelligence and respect. And I saw no sign that your differences led to division," he said in the letter.

Copies of it were circulated by students and published on several blogs, including the May 13 blog of Jesuit-run America magazine, www.americamagazine.org.

"You inspire me," Father Jenkins said. "We need the wider society to be more like you; it is good that we are sending you into that world on Sunday."

Father Jenkins also pointed out that he had a "special kinship" with the graduating class because those students started college when he began his term as president.

The priest said he was "saddened that many friends of Notre Dame" felt the Obama invitation showed "ambiguity in our position on matters of Catholic teaching," and noted that "the university and I are unequivocally committed to the sanctity of human life and to its protection from conception to natural death."

Critics of Notre Dame's decision, including more than 50 bishops, said the president's support of legal abortion and embryonic stem-cell research made him an inappropriate choice to be a commencement speaker at a Catholic university and to receive an honorary degree from the university.

The priest said Notre Dame has had a long custom of conferring honorary degrees on U.S. presidents not as political statements or policy endorsements but to show "respect for the leader of the nation and the office of the president."

"A Catholic university has a special obligation not just to honor the leader but to engage the culture," he said, adding that the role has "never been easy or without controversy."

Father Jenkins said he hoped Obama's visit would "lead to broader engagement on issues of importance to the country and of deep significance to Catholics." He also said he hoped it would "contribute to closer relations between Catholics and public officials who make decisions on matters of human life and human dignity."

"There is much to admire and celebrate in the life and work of President Obama," the priest said, noting that the U.S. president's views and policies on immigration, health care, poverty and peace-building "have a deep resonance with Catholic social teaching."

"As the first African-American holder of this office, he has accelerated our country's progress in overcoming the painful legacy of slavery and segregation. He is a remarkable figure in American history, and I look forward to welcoming him to Notre Dame," Father Jenkins said.

Notre Dame seniors who said they would not attend the commencement in protest of Obama's presence planned to participate in a prayer service in the university's grotto during the official ceremony.

Emily Toates, a senior who is vice president of the university's pro-life group, told CNN May 15 that she would be among the group boycotting the graduation.

She said if Obama had been invited in another context it would not have been as problematic.

"If he was invited to a town hall meeting, a panel discussion, something where we were actually discussing these issues and positively engaging, then I wouldn't have a problem with it. I would go and would want to hear what he has to say and dialogue with him," she said.

The May 17 prayer service was to be led by Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, as part of a two-day protest officially sanctioned by the university. A daylong rally featuring several speakers was also scheduled to take place on campus May 17.

Notre Dame Response, a student group opposing Obama's presence at the commencement, urged protesters to be respectful when they demonstrated. "Graphic images and signs not in keeping with the tone of this rally will not be permitted on Notre Dame's campus," the group noted on its Web site.

Nine days before the graduation, Catholic political commentator and sometime candidate Alan Keyes was arrested with 21 other protesters for trespassing on campus. Some in the group, protesting Obama's support for legal abortion, pushed baby carriages with dolls covered in fake blood.

Notre Dame is the second of three schools to feature Obama as commencement speaker. He spoke at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., May 13 and was scheduled to speak at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., May 22.

Arizona State University officials decided not to give Obama an honorary degree typically awarded to commencement speakers, saying that since 2003 the school has not given such degrees to sitting politicians. Instead, it planned to name its largest scholarship program after Obama.

END


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